The Intersection

A New Year for Education Accountability

January 27, 2016


As cliché as it has become, every January 1st, we Americans collectively take time to reflect on the previous year, ponder our successes and our challenges, and resolve to do better, be better, live better over the next 12 months. This year, state leaders across the United States have the opportunity to reflect specifically over 10 plus years of accountability under No Child Left Behind and later ESEA waivers and make their own resolutions for what the new era of accountability will look like under the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA). How will we collectively resolve to do better for our students in the year ahead?

The ESSA puts most of the power firmly back into states’ hands. No longer will states be fettered by AYP, instead each state will set its own benchmarks and systems for school performance—and determine what interventions are needed when schools miss the mark. Without the impending threat of meeting AYP targets, states are also no longer confined by the terms of their ESEA waivers, which required systems for teacher evaluations.

If a state so chooses, much of what has defined the last decade of education policy could easily fade into distant memory, for better or for worse. In this context, there is a real opportunity for states to demonstrate leadership. There is an easy appeal to wiping the slate clean to start anew, but abrupt changes could have significant impacts on our teachers and students. State leaders must closely examine the rationale behind their existing policies and systems, what is working and what is not; what needs to be tweaked versus that which is unrepairable. In all cases, the response will require courage: courage to say, “This has been difficult, but it is the right path.” Or, courage to say, “We have gone off course.”

There are no right answers, instead state leaders must once again figure out what questions they should be asking as they consider changes around standards, assessments, accountability, and teacher policies under the new law. 

  • How can state leaders encourage more collaboration across the PK-20 spectrum, particularly around issues like standards and assessments? What bar is the right bar for students in our state? How can the state better support teachers and schools in the implementation of CCR standards?
  • Are there concerns about time spent testing in our state (and if so, how much of that testing is local versus state)? What are the positive aspects and challenges of our current system of assessment? How can we ensure that the assessments students take are worthwhile?

  • How should growth be weighted compared to achievement? What is the right balance between academic indicators and other indicators? How do we create school accountability systems that are simple, fair, and easy to understand? What is the right role for the state to play when schools are low-performing?

  • How can we bring more educators to the table as we strive to ensure effective teachers in every classroom? In what ways has our teacher evaluation system worked well? Where has our state hit challenges with measuring teacher effectiveness?

States have the opportunity over the next few months to engage in real conversations about these types of questions. Thoughtful discourse around areas that have proven divisive over the last several years will allow leaders to be ready to move once guidelines are released and take full advantage of this policy window for education change in their states.

(For more information on changes under the ESSA, please check out this brief update.)


Launched in 2014, the Hunt-Kean Leadership Fellows program provides the opportunity for state leaders to ponder questions like those raised above around issues including standards, assessments, accountability, school choice, and educator effectiveness so that when the time comes to make decisions they are equipped to lead a conversation about real change in their states. Now in its second cohort, this distinguished group is comprised of lieutenant governors, attorney generals, legislative leaders, and cabinet-level officials from 23 states, representing both political parties, who are committed to having frank conversations about education issues facing our states.

(Meet the inaugural cohort of Hunt-Kean Leadership Fellows here.)

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